Since the Islamic State (IS) seized Mosul in June 2014 it has been destroying historic sites throughout the area. In the summer of 2014 for example it bombed the Ibn al-Atheer shrine and the Mosque of the Prophet Yunus. More recently it bulldozed the Assyrian cities of Nimrod and Hatra, and ransacked Khorsabad in March 2015. This has generated plenty of headlines and international condemnation, which has only obfuscated IS’s real purpose, which is to spread its propaganda while profiting in the process.
The popular narrative about the Islamic State’s destruction of his historic sites is that it wants to wipe out history and religions, which are not its own. The group opposes idolatry and apostasy, and argues that all of these places and items that it is destroying belong to Jahiliya the time of ignorance before Islam. While IS is promoting these views it has no problem looting these areas to make money off of them.
As recent reports have found dealing in antiquities has become a new source of funding for the Islamic State. For example, the Financial Action Task Force just released a study in February 2015 noting that smuggling historic items has become one avenue for the group to raise money. Iraq’s Tourism Ministry stated that IS loots ancient places before it destroys them, while the director of UNESCO’s Iraq office said that this has become more systematic recently. In Ninewa for instance, IS has a special group to find artifacts it can sell. It then uses Arab, Turkish, and Kurdish middlemen, along with connections to Turkish, Lebanese, and Jordanian criminal rings to smuggle the items out of Iraq and onto the black market. British newspapers recently found IS selling artifacts on eBay as well. One expert believed that this has become such a large business for the Islamic State that it is causing a drop in prices.
Destroying part of the Mosul Museum grabbed headlines around the world, but the Islamic State’s real goal was looting the museum to the tune of $24 mil (ABC)
An example of how this all works occurred in February when IS attacked the Mosul Museum. While the smashing of displays at the museum caused global outrage, the group ransacked the institution beforehand. It was said that it earned $24 million that month as a result. That showed the potential profits the organization could make from just one site.
The Islamic State is killing two birds with one stone with this current campaign. First, it is maintaining the world’s attention each time it attacks a historic site. This helps with its propaganda that it is the pre-eminent Salafi group. More importantly, it generates millions of dollars for the group as every one of these places is looted, and then the items are put up on the black market. International organizations are just now trying to crack down on this illicit trade, but that is very difficult, because the sources of this contraband are under IS control. After that it is very hard to track the antiquities as they pass through criminal rings. This will take a real coordinated effort across many groups and countries to not only deny IS this source of money, but also return Iraq’s stolen history.
Crone, Jack, “2,000-year-old artefacts looted by ISIS from ancient sites in Iraq and Syria are being sold on EBAY,” Daily Mail, 3/14/15
Financial Action Task Force, “Financing of the Terrorist Organisation Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL),” February 2015
Sarah, Aziz Abu, “Why is ISIS destroying Iraq’s historical heritage?” Haaretz, 3/12/15
Winsor, Morgan, “ISIS Torches 1,500 Historic Manuscripts In Iraq, Sells Looted Artifacts On Black Market: Report,” International Business Times, 3/12/15